Spotlight on Privacy and Confidentiality of Library Records

Spotlight on Privacy and Confidentiality of Library Records  New York; Civil Practice Law section 4509: Library records.

“Library records, which contain names or other personally identifying details regarding the users of public, free association, school, college and university libraries and library systems of this state, including but not limited to records related to the circulation of library materials, computer database searches, interlibrary loan transactions, reference queries, requests for photocopies of library materials, title reserve requests, or the use of audio-visual materials, films or records, shall be confidential and shall not be disclosed except that such records may be disclosed to the extent necessary for the proper operation of such library and shall be disclosed upon request or consent of the user or pursuant to subpoena, court order or where otherwise required by statute.”

There are four sections in this topic. You can scroll down to see each section or you can click on the links below to go directly to a specific section. Understand the Challenges: Privacy and Confidentiality of Library Records Issues to Consider
Use the Template: Review and Revise Your Policies Relating to Confidentiality and Privacy of Library Records
Get a Second Opinion: Ask a System Consultant to Review Your Draft

Section 1

Understand the Challenges: Privacy and Confidentiality of Library Records Issues to Consider  

As you see in New York Civil Practice Law Section 4509, New York public libraries cannot disclose information from a library user’s records except:

  1. Upon Request or Consent of the User
  2. To The Extent Necessary for the Proper Operation of the Library
  3. Pursuant to Subpoena, Court Order or Where Otherwise Required By Statute

    There is more on the policy and regulation implications of these exceptions below.

1. Upon Request or Consent of the User

At first glance, this exception seems very straightforward. Of course, library users can always see their own records. But what about access to the records of minors? We know that children and teens can see their own records, but can parents see their children’s records? Some states have enacted legislation that specifically addresses parental rights to view the library records of their children and teens, but New York State has not. Therefore, you will have to include regulations pertaining to parental access to their children’s records in your privacy policy. You will also have to address those issues in your regulations pertaining to issuing library cards (see below).

2. To The Extent Necessary for the Proper Operation of the Library

This is open to a wide variety of interpretations. Is it necessary for the proper operation of the library to display the names of children who have enrolled in the summer reading program? What about issuing library cards to minors? If you require a parental signature to issue a card to a minor and if you explicitly hold parents liable for their minor children’s fines, can the parents see their children’s circulation records?

3. Pursuant to Subpoena, Court Order or Where Otherwise Required by Statute

“Increased visits to libraries by law enforcement agents, including FBI agents and officers of state, county, and municipal police departments, are raising considerable concern among the public and the library community. These visits are not only a result of the increased surveillance and investigation prompted by the events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, but also as a result of law enforcement officers investigating computer crimes, including e-mail threats and possible violations of the laws addressing online obscenity and child pornography.” — American Library Association 

  • Police Request Circulation Records
    “Library Director Michele Reutty is under fire for refusing to give police library circulation records without a subpoena. Reutty says she was only doing her job and maintaining the privacy of library patrons. But the mayor called it ‘a blatant disregard for the Police Department,’ which needed her help to identify a man who allegedly threatened a child.”

    Library Chief Draws Cops’ Ire [and Sought ACLU Advice]
  • Police Request Internet Use Records
    “State police say they have pulled the plug on an investigation into the possible viewing of child pornography by a patron of Hendrick Hudson Free Library because the library board refuses to cooperate with them.” [The comments to this short article are particularly interesting]

    Cops: Library Stalls; Librarian Disagrees
  • FBI Uses US Patriot Act to Request Information
    “On June 8, 2004, an FBI agent stopped at the Deming branch of the Whatcom County Library System in northwest Washington and requested a list of the people who had borrowed a biography of Osama bin Laden. We said no.”

    Librarian’s brush with FBI shapes her view of the USA Patriot Act “Using its expanded power under the antiterrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act, the F.B.I. is demanding library records from a Connecticut institution as part of an intelligence investigation, the American Civil Liberties Union said Thursday. The demand is the first confirmed instance in which the Federal Bureau of Investigation has used the law in this way, federal officials and the A.C.L.U. said. The government’s power to demand access to library borrowing records and other material showing reading habits has been the single most divisive issue in the debate over whether Congress should extend key elements of the act after this year.”
    F.B.I., Using Patriot Act, Demands Library’s Records
    Federal Court Finds Patriot Act Gag On Connecticut Library Is Unconstitutional
    Librarians Speak Out for First Time After Being Gagged by Patriot Act

Section 2

Use the Template: Review and Revise Your Policy on Confidentiality of Library Records

The centerpiece of each of the NYLTO policy topics is a Policy Development Template. These templates have been developed by June Garcia, a nationally recognized authority on public library policies and co-author of Creating for Policies for Results: From Chaos to Clarity, (American Library Association, 2003).

For more information on using the templates, go to Structure Your Discussions: Policy Development Templates section in the Library Policy ABCs: Everything You Need to Know about Developing Library Policies topic.

Confidentiality of Personally Identifiable Information Template: This template lists the questions that need to be addressed relating to the library’s policies and regulations on privacy and confidentiality of library records. This is a brief sampling of the questions you and your fellow board members will consider:

  1. What information, if any, is considered confidential? 
  2. Under what circumstances, if any, will library staff provide borrower related information concerning a minor child to his or her parent or legal guardian?  May any member of the library staff provide this information or may only supervisors or staff with a particular classification(s) provide the information?
  3. How is this policy implemented if the library issues a family library card that is used by more than one person?
  4. How long does the library retain each type of data that contains personally identifiable information? How are these records discarded to ensure the privacy and confidentiality of library users?

To Generate Ideas, see Development Questions on the Mid-Hudson Library System’s External Policy Page: Confidentiality of Patron Records

Database policies are to provide information and to spark ideas, but should be used in conjunction with the templates.

Section 3

Get a Second Opinion: Ask a System Consultant to Review Your Draft When you have finished your draft policy statement and regulations, you may send it to your system representative for review and feedback, if you wish.